Film Review – Thunder Soul
Director Mark Landsman’s Thunder Soul (2010) is the kind of movie that sinks under your skin. You’ve seen the story before: a determined teacher looking to make the most out of his pupils, and a group of students who would have been lost without his guidance. I had this in mind, and walked in thinking that I knew what I was getting myself into. And then, something interesting happened. The film revealed itself to be much more absorbing, richer, and more fulfilling than other musical documentaries of its kind. It presented a colorful group of people, all of whom became the best at what they do: playing music. And even more incredible was that they were at the top of their field while still in high school. It’s a celebration of one man’s efforts to bring his students together through music, and present that celebration to a new generation.
The documentary does take the routine steps that many others have when telling the story of one person’s life, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Conrad O. Johnson Sr., better known as “Prof,” is the center this time around. Prof worked as a musical leader for the Kashmere High School Band in Houston. Through his expert knowledge of music, along with his very strict way of teaching, Prof molded the band into a near-perfect ensemble in the early 1970s. They were the first all black high school band represented in local competitions, and they would sweep the other groups en route to becoming a world-class musical powerhouse. One of the many innovations that Prof infused into the band was to take well-established jazz rhythms and incorporate a fresh, upbeat style of funk, creating a brand new sound that would become a benchmark for that decade and beyond. Just to put it into a little bit of context: the funky sounds that are presented here would highly influence hip-hop culture and style. Go to any breakdancing event today, and the music you will hear is partly influenced by Prof and his contemporaries.
While the music and acclaim that the band had is certainly a great highlight, the best moments were the smaller ones. The beauty of this film is in the relationships between the students, now thirty years older, as they reunite and reminisce about Prof and what he meant to each of them. What I enjoyed is that the film doesn’t try to be overly ambitious. It doesn’t try to make a political statement or overbear us with any kind of heavy-handed agenda. There are no bad guys here, but a group of people all brought together out of mutual respect and love for one person. One student remembered how anxious they were when they auditioned to make the band; another recalls a time when Prof would get on him for not playing his instrument as well as he could have. They all remember the tough times, but they also remember the great times together while they traveled, made recordings, or simply had fun doing something positive together. Each of them was touched by and has not forgotten Prof, and when each of them talks about him, it is like they are talking about their own father.
One student in particular stands out from the rest. Craig Baldwin was on a fast track to bad places. He was a street kid, and without any guidance would’ve found himself in a world of violence or in the hands of the law. Prof provided him a place of comfort and safety, and put him on the right track that would last until the present day. Baldwin is the heart and soul of the film; he represents everyone that had been mentored by Prof, and shows how music and his teaching could positively influence a young person’s mind. Eager to give back and show the kind of gratitude that Prof deserves, Baldwin spearheaded the reunion of the band, and became their musical director. It’s a moving piece of character development, to see the young, troubled boy grow up and become the responsible, mature man. To see Baldwin lead the new group is to see Prof working through him, and to see the final concert in which the band plays a musical tribute to their teacher works as a touching display of love to the man, a representation of a great musical generation, and an inspired feeling that this kind of passion will hopefully ripple onwards to future young people. If one watches this and does not feel emotional by its climax, it can only mean that they have a heart of coal.
I’ve never heard of Prof before seeing the film, but afterwards I could tell how much of an interesting and inspiring person he was. At the time of filming, Prof was 92 years old. Aged and frail, he was a man who clearly had lived a full life. While he certainly moved slowly and took his time at his advanced age, the moment one began talking about music, or the second he started listening to it, Prof immediately seemed like he gained 30 years of his life back. He became sprite and energetic, he would bounce his head to the beats, and give a slight nod or smile of approval when he heard something he liked. When interacting with people, he would joke around, poke fun or tease others. But he was always serious about his work, about his music, and when speaking about preserving musical courses in school you can see a glitter of excitement in his eye. Prof could have been a successful and famous musical artist, but he abandoned that to teach young people. Seeing the results in retrospect, he clearly made the right decision.
Thunder Soul is an accomplishment from many different facets. From the story of the band, to their leader, to the portrayal of 1970s African American culture and its influence today, it encompasses all in a passionate and well-made movie. There are plenty of laughs, plenty of tears, and plenty of music all around. We’ve certainly seen stories of teachers helping and guiding students, but this film was able to stick with me in a positive way despite its familiarity.
Final Grade: A-